I don't want my daughter to be in her 30s before she realizes these fundamental truths about life.
Like my Boomer parents before me, I was raised to be seen and not heard. I was raised to work, not learn. My parents pushed me to do more house and yard work than most adults do.
As a result of all that work, the objects in our house were in perfect order at all times, but the people were always in chaos — and not the wacky, fun-loving kind of chaos on display in 80s and 90s sitcoms. Everyone under our roof was an out-of-control emotional wreck, including me.
Without any siblings in the house, my parents were my only example of how to behave and handle things. As the scapegoat of the family, I was made to feel responsible for the entire household and everything that went on in it, including my parents' happiness, well-being and moods.
If my mother dropped something, it was my fault. If there was a noise, I had done something wrong. Why didn't I know we were going to run out of toothpaste? And why didn't I tell anyone? I mean, what would we do without toothpaste for an hour?
The stakes were so high in my house growing up, even the most mundane things were intensely dramatic. But beyond that, my mother had no coping skills when it came to the daily duties of parenting and would fly into a blackout rage when I dared to question her, expressed how I felt about how she treated me, or asked for something I needed.
She was extremely punitive and hypercritical (though she did love to take credit for anything I managed to do well), and she saw me as an extension of herself. I wasn't her daughter, so much as a smaller version of her she could boss around, destroy or beg for comfort from, depending on her needs in the moment.
In short: it was a f*cked up way to grow up, and it left me without any sense of self, well into adulthood.
I hated growing up alone, floating adrift in a sea of disaster, trying my best to raise myself. I vowed from a very young age that when I had a child of my own, I would raise her differently. I knew I would value her, listen to her, and that when she challenged me, I wouldn't need to be right all the time. I wouldn't punish her in outlandish ways for minor offenses, project my emotions onto her, or scream at her and blame her for everything. I wouldn't resent her. Instead, I would love her and care for her the way I never had been loved or cared for.
Raising my daughter in the face of my own childhood trauma has been the greatest challenge and gift I will ever experience. I'm constantly learning about what's really important and what isn't, and how to impart that wisdom onto my daughter.
The following ideas are ones I've spent a lot of time learning as an adult who has had to re-parent herself in therapy. I talk to my daughter about these things all the time, in the hopes that she'll enter adulthood with a healthy sense of self, able to share her talents and spirit with confidence and joy.
1. Relationships should enrich your life, not deplete you emotionally.
If there's one idea I want my daughter to remember from childhood, it's this: Relationships create the emotional landscape of our lives, so it's important that they're healthy and make us feel supported.
I have this little system that I've taught my daughter to use to measure the success of a relationship: If a relationship makes you feel good 70 percent or more of the time, it's a positive, healthy relationship. If it makes you feel good only 60 percent of the time, it needs work. Fix it or ditch it. (With love and light, namaste.) If a relationship makes you feel good 50 percent of the time or less, it's not a relationship worth maintaining.
Using this formula has helped my daughter find friends who make her feel supported and respected, and she knows she can also apply this formula to romantic relationships one day, as well. She also knows how to be a good friend herself.
2. Your thoughts and feelings matter.
If this seems obvious and unnecessary to state, that means you grew up in a healthy family. Congrats! But for those of us who grew up in dysfunction fueled by things like mental illness, alcoholism, and/or untreated family trauma, this idea is revolutionary.
I was told explicitly that I had "no rights" in my house, and that I should shut up because I didn't know what I was talking about, on top of being constantly gaslit in more subtle and insidious ways. My mother's omnipresent and oppressive perspective was the only one ever given any credence when I was a child, unless she was acquiescing to my father's needs.
As a result, it took me until I was in my early 30s to understand what my thoughts and feelings were, as opposed to my mother's voice echoing in my head, and even longer to accept that my thoughts and feelings are actually paramount. You know the put-your-own-mask-on-first-before-assisting-others analogy: only when we make our thoughts and feelings known can we get our needs met, and only then can we fairly help and accommodate others.
3. Affection is safe to give and receive.
This is a concept I'm still working on as I pursue romantic relationships, and that's directly influenced by the fact that affection was never something given to me as a child, only taken from me. I had to comfort my mother when she asked for it, and my father refused all affection, given or received.
I want my daughter to feel comfortable giving and receiving physical and verbal affection. We cuddle, hug, smooch and play. We have a no hitting rule. (Seriously, if you don't, please read this.) We talk about personal boundaries, good touch and bad touch, feeling safe with people, and having the right to say no to any touch that isn't welcome.
When my daughter is a teenager, I'll begin to teach her about yes means yes, the consent culture approach to sexuality.
4. It's important and OK to apologize.
There were no apologies in my childhood home — only defenses, excuses and tantrums. And that was from the adults. But everyone screws up now and again, and not only is it important to apologize for hurting someone's feelings or making a serious mistake, but I want my daughter to understand it's *safe* to apologize.
It doesn't mean you're "taking the blame" or that you're responsible for everything bad that's ever happened since the dawn of time; it just means that you recognize that you fell short, and because you care about the people you live with, go to school with, and have relationships with, you're sorry. It's also fair to ask for an apology when you feel you deserve one or need one.
5. You're smart and intuitive, so trust your gut.
My upbringing left me completely ignorant of and out-of-touch with my instincts. My instincts never left me, of course, it's just that because I was told my needs didn't matter and that my narrative wasn't true, I learned to question my gut feelings and see them as unreliable.
They were like a foreign language that I'd heard before, but couldn't speak. I teach my daughter that her instincts are never wrong and that she should always heed them.
6. You don't have to be perfect.
It's so important for any child to understand that their parents' love isn't conditional, and that they don't need to be perfect to be loved and accepted. Holding your child to a performance or behavioral standard that's out of reach will destroy their sense of self, as will taunting them with a moving target they can never hit.
My daughter knows that it's OK if she forgets her homework, gets a stain on her clothes, or does something she shouldn't have done. No one's perfect. Nor should they feel like they have to be. In fact, knowing there's room for error actually allows people to perform better, because they feel more secure knowing that it's safe to fail.
7. You're funny.
My father was a great joke and storyteller, and watching him essentially do crowd work on everyone who crossed his path taught me so much of my own comedic sensibility. But when I tried my hand at being funny around the dinner table, he was never impressed. Being funny was his thing. (I remember once he said to me, "How you gonna be a choreographer when you're so fat?" I replied, "Well, first of all, I don't want to be a choreographer.") The few decent memories I have of interacting with my mother, though, are of me making her laugh until she cried.
One of the things I love most about raising my daughter is watching her sense of humor develop, telling her how smart and funny she is, and getting to laugh together. She cracks me up and amazes me all the time with her quick wit and dry repartee. I love reinforcing to my daughter that women and girls are powerfully funny, and that humor is an incredible communication tool.
8. Remember to stay calm.
My daughter comes from a long line of anxious, panicky, fretting, sweaty, worried, frustrated people on both sides of her family, so teaching her patience and calm has been really essential. I suffered debilitating panic attacks when I was in college, and I don't want my daughter to meet the same fate.
We talk all the time about stopping to breathe when she's frustrated or worried, then looking again at how to solve the problem. She's gotten so much better at this over the years. By the time she graduates high school, she'll be leading meditation retreats at a cat colony, totally blissed out.
9. Try new things.
Like any child, I was curious about the world around me and interested in many things, but I was often told not to branch out and explore, and I was warned about getting too smart, because smart people are harder to control. (Quick shout-out and thank you to every teacher I ever had!)
I want my daughter to explore as many activities and areas of study as she has interest in, so she can find what she loves and enjoy it.
10. If you work hard, you can succeed.
Learned helplessness was ingrained deep within me by the time I left my parents' house. I had heard so many times that trying was useless, life was futile (or, more specifically, "a bitch and then you die"), that you can never get ahead no matter what, and nothing was fair.
Accordingly, every time anything went even the slightest bit wrong in my life, I would get completely discouraged and feel totally overwhelmed, as if giving up was the only option. (Though never really starting was even better.)
Luckily, I've unraveled all of this in therapy and learned how not to spiral, instead taking things in stride. (Quick shout-out and thank you to my therapist/real mom, Linda!) My daughter knows that consistently applied work ethic combined with talent absolutely without a doubt yields positive results.
11. Rest when you need to.
Typical of an authoritarian household, my family mantra was "no rest for the weary." Work was everything — hard work, the kind that hurts and leaves you exhausted at the end. Sleep was for jerks. If one person was up in the morning, everyone had to be up, even if it was 5 AM.
I still work hard, but I try to maintain a healthy work/life balance so that my daughter's life feels balanced, too. Early on in my healing journey, my therapist told me something I find extremely helpful: You can't do every thing every day. In other words, pick one day a week for cleaning, one for bonding time, one for an extra hard career push, one for socializing, and feel good about what you accomplish each day.
Don't focus on all the things you have to do that are overwhelming. Take life one day at a time.
12. Eat breakfast.
It's the meal of champions! I never ate breakfast as a kid, so it doesn't come naturally to me, but I make sure my daughter eats breakfast every day. I try to eat breakfast first thing every day now, too, so I don't end up eating the four meals I refer to as lunchish, dinner, 10 PM sneak attack, and midnight dumpster dive.
13. Let it go, Elsa.
When all else fails and you lose it over something upsetting, don't cling to your emotions about it and ruminate forever. Feel your feelings, then flick your ice dress in the wind and Let It Go, Elsa.
14. Maintain "sticktuitiveness."
In other words, don't give up. Sometimes things take longer than we'd like or require more effort than we think should be necessary, but when dealing with a problem or trying to meet a goal, see it through to the end. Don't just use a band-aid fix that will result in the dam bursting later or give up before the job is done. Be thorough. Stick to it.
15. Don't cry over spilled milk.
This one's not a metaphor, it's literal. Any time I spilled anything in the house as a kid, my mother had the most overwrought, inappropriate, the-world-is-ending, LOOK AT MY RUG!, how could you?!, you've ruined everything! response. It took me until I was in my late 30s to realize that kind of reaction is insane and completely unnecessary.
My daughter spilled milk on our new rug this week, and while my instinct may always be to echo my mother's craziness, I know how to override that knee-jerk reaction. Instead, I asked her to grab some paper towels and together we wiped it up. I bought rug cleaner, applied it, and poof! It's like it never happened. No. Big. Deal.
BONUS: "Let people like you for who you are, not who they think you are."
I asked my daughter to go over the list above with me to see if I missed anything, and she said this. "If people think you're a different person, if they find out who you really are, they might not know what to do, because you've basically been lying to them. They might have liked the fake person you've been being this whole time more, but they might like the person you are more, so that's why you should be who you really are from the beginning."
In other words, don't be a people-pleaser. It doesn't work, and it will only hurt you in the end. Sound advice, out of the mouth of my babe!